Previewing Week 16: Ravens at Chargers
The past several weeks have been exciting for Ravens fans. The team has been winning and is in position to make the playoffs, but they are going to most likely have to win the last two games on the schedule for that to happen. The upcoming game this Saturday in Los Angeles is probably one of the hardest games of the season, and it is a must-win. Will the Lamar Jackson-led offense be able to continue its dominance running the ball, and will the defense be able to step up to the difficult task of shutting down one of the better offenses in the NFL? Those are the two questions that will likely determine the fate of the Ravens season.
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I mentioned above the two keys to this game, and while it has been a formula that has worked over the past 5 games, the Chargers pose a different level of challenge, especially for the Ravens offense. While the Chargers are not an elite unit by any stretch, they have been performing better of late with the return of star DE Joey Bosa. LA boasts the 12th best defense per DVOA (which is still far better than any of the teams the Ravens have faced since they bye), and a weighted analysis that gives more weight to recent games, rates the Chargers as 8th best overall. If we look at some more traditional metrics the Chargers are 9th against the run and 8th against the pass.
For the Ravens offense to be effective against a talent Chargers defense, they are going to have to rely on the Lamar advantage – make the defense account for him on every single play. The Chargers have excellent corners and DEs, but they are weakest up the middle. The Ravens would be wise to target Chargers LBs, both in the passing game via play action and by showing a number of different run looks that will hopefully make them slow to diagnose the play. Misdirection and deception will be keys for the Ravens offense.
A wild-card in this game may be rookie Safety Derwin James who is a leading candidate to be named DROY. James is having an outstanding season and can play anywhere on the field. The Chargers may choose to use him as a Lamar Jackson spy that could significantly impact the Ravens ability to run the ball. If the Chargers sell out to stop the run, it may require Jackson to drop back and pass the ball more frequently that he has been used to. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Chargers choose to defend Jackson, and how the Ravens adjust may dictate the outcome of this one.
On offense, the Chargers have been one of the best in the NFL this season, rating 2nd in offensive DVOA, 6th in total yards, and 4th in scoring. While they are not quite as explosive as the Chiefs offense, they still pick up an impressive 8.8 YPA passing the ball and 4.8 YPC on the ground. To make matters worse for the Ravens, the Chargers will likely be getting star RB Melvin Gordon back from injury and WR Keenan Allen who like he might miss the game with a hip injury is expected to play.
The Ravens defense has proven that they can play well against the best offenses in the NFL, holding explosive teams like the Chiefs, Chargers, Saints, Steelers and Bucs to points and yardage totals far below their averages. Going into week 16 the Ravens boast the 2nd best defensive DVOA and have limited opponents to a league-leading 290 yards per game. They have been especially stingy against opposing QBs, limiting passers to just 6.2 YPA while their 3.8 YPC is good enough for 4th best against opposing RBs. The Ravens general approach is to stop the run first and attempt to put teams in 3rd and long situations. Against a balanced offense like the Chargers, it may be difficult to completely shut down the running game, but I think they will more than likely have to rely on the passing game to move the ball.
Similar to the Falcons and Chiefs whom the Ravens were able to limit, the Chargers are among the best in the NFL at picking up chunks of yardage via explosive plays. For the Ravens to win this game they must continue to limit these long plays and force the Chargers to slowly matriculate the ball down the field. This should also give the Ravens more opportunities to create negative plays such as sacks and turnovers. While the Ravens have not done well this season in forcing turnovers, they have been able to improve in this area the past few weeks and have notched INTs in back to back weeks.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers is having an MVP type season, and has done a great job at limiting INTs so it will be hard to count on him making many mistakes. It will be interesting to see how DC Wink Martindale approaches this game, as he has had a tendency to use very vanilla pressure schemes when playing veteran QBs, opting to drop 7 into coverage rather than bringing an extra blitzer. He may be forced to change that approach if the Ravens front 4 is not able to pressure Rivers because even an excellent secondary like the Ravens possess can be picked apart if there is no pressure on the QB.
This game is by all measures a must-win if the Ravens hope to make the playoffs, and winning this one could even set them up to win the division depending on how the rest of week 16 plays out. The players will be highly motivated in this game, and I do think it will be a hard-fought close finish. As much as I would love to pick the Ravens to win, I think the Chargers are just too talented on both sides of the ball to let this game go, Chargers win 23 – 20.